Surprising aircraft vying to be Army's new bird

The Skyworks Global Heliplane would have outstanding range, can hover like a helicopter, and can carry weapons and troops. But it's not a helicopter; it's a gyrocopter. For decades, gyrocopters have been an interesting but small part of the aviation industry. Skyworks is trying to make it a major part of Army Future Vertical Lift.

There's a new company vying to build the Army's new family of helicopters, and the gyrocopter design is at least as radical as the compound helicopters being offered by Sikorsky or the tilt-rotors that Bell is building.

The company, Skyworks Global, has a history of producing gyrocopters. These look a bit like helicopters, but they're much less complex, are often more efficient, and cost a lot less. But they have a big weakness against helicopters: they can't traditionally take off or land vertically.

Skyworks made some progress in a 2005 DARPA program, but the program had its funding cut. Now, Skyworks has partnered with Scaled Composites, a company that rapidly develops aircraft prototypes, to make a functional version to compete in military programs.

Thanks to the lack of a rotor mast, transmission, and some other complex parts, Skyworks thinks it can make an aircraft much cheaper while still exceeding Army requirements for range and other capabilities. In fact, the firm told Flight Global that it could build a gyro for four passengers for a mere $10 million.

That would leave a lot of upgrade money for the company to strap on sensors, a more powerful engine, and other upgrades and still stay way below the Army's planned $43 million per aircraft to replace the Black Hawk by 2030.

The aircraft is known as a VertiJet, and while it looks like a traditional helicopter, the physics are quite different. Basically, a traditional helicopter has a powerful engine that powers the main rotor—the spinning, horizontal blades mounted on top of the aircraft—as well as an anti-torque rotor that keeps the rest of the aircraft from spinning. The main blades produce lift and allow the helicopter to fly.

On a gyrocopter, the big blades on top of the aircraft don't receive any engine power. Instead, power is delivered to a rotor at the front or rear of the aircraft. That sends the aircraft forward and feeds air over the blades. That air spins the blades, and that generates the lift that sends the aircraft skyward.

This has some serious advantages for the military. First, air generally flows up through a gyrocopter's rotors instead of down, eliminating brownouts and improving pilot visibility near the ground. But there's a severe downside, the gyrocopter has to get good forward speed before it can take off, and it can't hover.

Skyworks turned to a 1950s experiment to fix the vertical takeoff problem. Their design feeds air up through the rotor and out of the blade tips during takeoff, causing the blades to spin like a traditional helicopter's would during takeoff or hover. Since this is achieved with compressed air instead of engine power, they don't need to add a transmission or masthead.

Even with Scaled Composites' skill at rapidly developing prototypes, it'll be pretty late to the game for the Future Armed Reconnaissance program to produce a new armed scout. But other Army programs could be a good fit, and the Marine Corps is looking for helicopters or helicopter-like aircraft that can keep up with the V-22 Osprey. Skyworks has not said what programs it will compete for with the new push.

For decades in the early 20th century, the military only flew balloons and piston-powered planes. In World War II, the first helicopters joined the war effort. Over 45 years later, the V-22 became the first tilt-rotor aircraft to enter military production. Now, there are two new aircraft designs in consideration, the compound helicopter and the gyrocopter.

The skylines over military bases are about to get a lot more interesting.